Basal Cell Biography

Wednesday, May 16th, 2018

I have a distinct memory of my 4th grade classroom filled with the smell of vinegar because Mrs. Quinn, my teacher, had sun burned herself so badly while on vacation that the only way she could get relief was by spraying herself all over with the stuff. I knew a sunburn likes hers was painful because even by 4th grade I had burned like that numerous times; going to the beach, the neighborhood pool, playing baseball, just even spending the day outside running around. As I got older there were times I intentionally burned because I had the belief, as many do, that after a bad sunburn I would end up tanned.  I occasionally wore sunscreen because my mother made me, but the sunscreens were always thick and uncomfortable and they stunk like perfume. For the most part I just dealt with the discomfort of sunburns. Cancer was never a consideration. Sunburns were just a part of life.

I was 33, and working for a dermatologist as a medical assistant, when I noticed a nodule starting to grow on my scalp near my hairline. I had seen a fair amount of skin cancers in the office, melanomas, basal cells, squamous cells, and it never occurred to me that the spot that was growing was a cancer. I asked a doctor in passing what she thought it was and she said it might be a clogged hair follicle, but she would need to look closer after clinic. I thought that was a good enough answer and figured I’d get it addressed eventually. Cancer still wasn’t a consideration. Cancer was something that happened to other people. I believed people got cancer if they had cancer in their families, and as far as I knew we weren’t a cancer having family.

A couple of weeks later that same doctor was talking with me and she said, “did you and I ever look more closely at that spot on your head?” I told her we hadn’t but that I was going to make an appointment with her soon.  She immediately pulled me into a room with better light, took out a magnifying glass, and after looking closely said, “I think that’s a basal cell carcinoma.” A cancer? On me? But I’m not a from a cancer family. I’ve never used a tanning bed.  I’m young! All of a sudden all of the questions I had been asking patients about their sun exposure history came rushing back to me. 3 of them stood out. Have you had many bad sunburns? Fair skinned? Do you wear sunscreen? Yes, yes, no.

As far as skin cancers go I was very lucky to develop a basal cell. Basal cells have a very high survival rate when detected early. Around the same time I was diagnosed a neighbor, same age as me, also with young kids, found out he had a melanoma and passed away rather quickly. I’m often struck by the good fortune of ending up in a dermatology office. Had I not worked for a dermatologist I may never have known the seriousness of skin cancers, and I may never have had my basal cell identified.  I was able to be seen by a brilliant surgeon named Mark Chastain who performed Mohs surgery on me. Mohs is a micrographic surgery that gets all of the cancerous cells but leaves as much of the healthy tissue and minimizes scarring. The procedure was fairly quick, the scar is near impossible to see, and I am now basal cell free. To a point.

My chances of developing another basal cell are increased as are my chances of developing melanoma. I’ve decided to forgo adding color to a large tattoo I have so it’s easier to identify changing moles.  To make sure that I am protected I wear hats when outside, I get yearly skin cancer exams, and I’ve found a great sunscreen, Elta MD UV Clear, that is perfume free and so light that I often forget if I’ve put it on.  I find that many of my male friends defer seeing a dermatologist because there is an idea that only women take care of their skin, or that dermatologists are only for cosmetic concerns. I’ve learned that dermatologists save lives, and no gender is afforded a reprise from the possibility of a skin cancer. I often think of that neighbor who passed away from his skin cancer, and I count my blessings that my dermatologist was there to save me from mine.